Not Your Normal Portraits

If you’ve ever wandered through the Louvre in Paris or through any of the great houses in Britain, you’d have come across portraits of royalty and the nobility and good grief, how boring they are. Most, of course, were painted in times when there were no photography, and to preserve any memory at all of King Louis the Umpteenth or His Grace The Duke of  Marmalade-Hyphen-Dogsbottom, a portrait artist was summoned and told, “Paint me.” Needless to say, of course, the painter would take great pains to hide His Majesty’s facial pox marks or the Earl’s syphilis sores, and the result was one of uniform blandness, generations and generations upon generations thereof. If the painter was really good, and not just some fashionable hack that all the Society Knobs were using at the time (yes, that happened then just as it does today), he’d maybe capture a spark of spirit in the eyes, or a dimple in a smile, but mostly they all looked like waxwork figures, with about as much life.

Then came Boldini.

Giovanni Boldini is definitely my favorite portraitist of all time, and indeed he’s in my top ten list of all artists, period. I’m not going to write a potted biography of the man (here’s a decent one on the website bearing his name); rather, I want to highlight just a few of my favorites of his works.

When heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt married the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895, one of the things she brought to the marriage, other than a gazillion of her father’s dollars, was a very American attitude towards one’s own children. In contrast to the other noble families of the time, who looked on their male children as “heirs and spares” and wasted no time in shipping them off to boarding school, thence to the Army/Navy or public service, Consuelo adored both her sons, and especially the younger, Ivor Spencer-Churchill.

Enter Boldini. By this time, he was one of the most sought-after portraitists in Europe — indeed, he made so much money through his portraits that in his later years he’d quit painting them and only painted what he wanted to paint (which we’ll look at down the page). Boldini spent some time with Lady Marlborough, and discovered the close relationship between her and her younger son. Then he painted this portrait of the two of them:

The portrait actually scandalized what was known then as “polite” society (even though it was anything but), because instead of having young Ivor standing stiffly at her side in the prevailing fashion, he had the boy lounging against his mother in a pose which, to the swells, looked more like that of a lover than a child, nestled up to her bosom and his hand possessively on her leg. Of course, Consuelo cared not a fig for the whispers — as one of the wealthiest women in the world, and married into one of the oldest and most storied noble families in Britain (or anywhere else) withal, she could tell them all to take a hike, and she did. So the portrait survives to this day at Blenheim Palace, and you can see it for yourself if you do one of the tours (unless the painting is being exhibited elsewhere). I think it’s absolutely incredible: Boldini captured the relationship between mother and son as well as Consuelo’s considerable beauty and elegance, and it remains one of the great family portraits of all time.

Even Boldini’s “ordinary” portraits are anything but. Here’s one of Lady Colin Campbell, a society beauty of the late nineteenth century:

…and I don’t know if there’s a sultrier, sexier portrait of its kind anywhere.

As I said, Boldini gave up portrait painting after a while and started to do works that interested him. Mostly, as his biography notes, they were of women — but instead of the realistic style of the portraits, they began to lean towards late Impressionism. (Whether that’s because of his failing eyesight or just because he liked the style is probably a moot issue. Myself, I love almost every one of his later works.) Here’s a sample. First, the “Spanish Dancer At The Moulin Rouge”:

Now let’s look at something a little (okay, a lot) racier, his “Reclining Nude III”:

Hmmm… maybe I should have put up the usual NSFW warning, but hey, it’s Saturday and you shouldn’t be at work anyway. Finally, here’s my favorite of all Boldini’s paintings, an earlier one entitled “The Hammock”:

In a word, it’s exquisite: the soft springtime lighting and the dense background of bushes, trees and flowers which surround the slight form of the girl sleeping in the hammock. It’s a view which is chaste (the long soft material conceals almost everything except her face) and yet intimate (the stockinged leg falling carelessly off the hammock and out from under the dress). It’s voyeuristic, but innocently so — and I think if Boldini had only ever painted this single work, it would still be considered a masterpiece.

Now you can go and look at his other works, here. No doubt you’ll find one or two that you prefer over my choices, and you won’t hear a word of disagreement from me, ever. That’s how highly I regard this artist.

Enjoy, and if you want to buy a print of one of Boldini’s works (on canvas or paper, in varying sizes), you can do so at the Art Renewal Museum.

 

Conservative Timekeeping

One of the problems of having a conservative outlook is that it permeates every part of your life. Just because something is called “new and improved” does not necessarily make it so — which is even more the case when it comes to societal conditions, of course, in that if one is aware of history, there isn’t much new, and even less is an improvement that hasn’t been tried before, mostly ending in failure.

One might think that this isn’t the case with technology, but even there I look at things with a jaundiced eye. Automotive technology is certainly better than it was a hundred years ago, but we’ve climbed that far up the quality/performance curve to where today’s model is enormously better than the Model T, but not that much better than last year’s model. (And I still prefer a stick shift to an automatic transmission, and a bolt-action rifle to a semi-auto one, to name but two of thousands of examples.)

All this came to mind when I was having a couple of welcome-home drinks with Doc Russia, and he mentioned the fact that he was looking at buying a decent “dress” wristwatch, but because his experience with watches has been limited to utility rather than appearance, he was somewhat at a loss as to what he should be looking at.

As it happens, watches and clocks are something of a passion of mine — if I ever won the lottery, I’d be in deep trouble — so I was happy to offer some words of advice. (I’ve owned several decent watches in the course of my life: Omega, Longines, Piguet and so on, which has made me keenly aware of the value of a good watch — and not just one which keeps perfect time.)

Buying a watch is about as personal a decision as one can find — hell, I’ve known men to spend more time on deciding which watch to buy than selecting a car or even a wife — so there are all sorts of combinations / permutations of features and characteristics which go into one’s final decision which are, to put it mildly, very much individualistic. I realize that in today’s world, such a discussion is akin to such old-fashioned purchase decisions as to the best buggy whip to buy, or even (gasp) the best bolt-action rifles for your needs and wallet, but nevertheless, here we go.

At the outset, I’m going to exclude from this post any discussion of being comfortable with a drugstore digital battery-powered cheapie which keeps perfect time and costs less than fifty bucks. I have absolutely no problem with this attitude — hell, I’ve owned more than one Timex or Casio in my time too — and I’m also not going to engage with people who’ve quit wearing wristwatches altogether, leaving the timekeeping function to their cell phone. It’s the modern thing, and of course it’s your choice. That’s all well and good, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Remember, we’re not talking utility as the primary driving factor in buying a new watch; we’re talking class, beauty, style and quality of workmanship. This is akin to the difference between buying a Toyota Corolla and, say, a Lexus. Both do the same job, both are of excellent quality, but each offers a different style of delivery. This is no less true of watches.

As with all things, you have to start with budget. (If you don’t, you’ll just get frustrated.) Doc’s budget is between $5,000 and $7,000, which offers a wide range of options, all good ones. (Much more than this, say $10,000 plus, and we’re looking at investment watches, which creates a set of completely different purchase criteria.)

Let’s also stipulate that we’re looking for a wristwatch and not a pocket- or “waistcoat” watch, just to keep things simpler.

We should start with what I think is the most important criterion, which is movement: automatic, or manual wind? (There are few battery-powered watches in this price range, which I think is good. My everyday watch is a cheap-ish Dooney & Burke which, while very pretty, needs a new battery every eighteen months, and it drives me scatty.) Automatic is the lazy man’s choice — it self-winds by the movement on one’s wrist but to be honest, unless you’re spending a lot of money (more than our budget), the timekeeping is not always perfect to the millisecond and the watch may need to be adjusted occasionally. A manual wind — generally more precise and therefore more expensive — is of the “eight-day” type: one full wind will last for about a week, and then the watch will need to be rewound. I have no preference, myself, although I lean towards the manual (see “stick shift” and “bolt-action rifle” above): it’s the first of many personal choices we’re going to encounter. Here are some examples of manual-wind watches in our price range:

The last, the IWC Pilot, is normally outside our price range, but I’ve seen it on sale recently, so if you love it (and I do), you may be in luck.

With automatic (a.k.a. self-wind), prices almost halve. All the above examples which have automatic variants cost less than $5,000 — and with that premium removed, we also have a few more brand options within the price range:


…and so on.

Next, we come to appearance: white face, or black/colored? Myself, I prefer a white face, but some of the grays are quite gorgeous. Ditto the hands of the watch: simple, straight, ornate? And the numbers: regular, Roman, dashes, or Art Deco (to name but some). Other functions (date, day, month, stopwatch, moon phase etc.)? Leather strap, plastic strap or metal expandable strap? Once again, all this is a matter of personal choice. If you want or need a watch that does everything except make you coffee in the mornings, go for it.

Honestly, the choices are dizzying (in almost any price bracket), and there are hardly any bad choices once one gets over a thousand dollars. (Poor taste choices, however, are another story — but one man’s bad taste is another’s gotta-have, so I stay away from value judgments of that nature.) For myself, the plainer the better, and I don’t need a date because I hardly ever write checks anymore. I prefer the look of stainless steel over gold; although a decent gold watch always looks classy, the price premium is just more than I want to spend. I prefer a leather strap; I can’t wear the expandable metal straps because I have hairy arms and wrists, and the damn things pinch.

So here’s my shortlist of watches (in addition to all the above) which are more or less in Doc’s price range.

IWC (probably my favorite brand in this price range):

Longines:

Maurice Lacroix and Glasshutte:

And finally, no piece like this would be complete without showing the watch I’d want to get as soon as the Powerball guys got their ducks in a row and finally gave me the winning ticket:

If you wanna know how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Note the Art Nouveau numbering, the faded and understated gold… yowzah.


If you want to play like I did, and see just what’s out there, go to Prestige Time and browse. I don’t think their prices are realistic, by the way: I haven’t found them to be anywhere near those quoted by reputable retail outlets. But they have a bunch of watches showcased, so enjoy.

Then And Now (1)

Speaking as a guy who’s well on the downward slope, I want to talk a little about getting old. No, we’re not going to have some cranky comments about stiffening joints and so on: this is Sunday, when we celebrate beauty.

For some reason, European actresses aren’t as obsessed with youthfulness as Anglo-American women are, and most especially American women. Yes, there are some who go under the knife in the American fashion, but “growing old gracefully” seems to be a more common feature of European women.

I know: this post is yuseless wiffout pitchurs. Here’s Belgian actress Ann Courvels, then and now:

Yeah, she’s obviously older, a little plumper… but good grief, what a woman.

Then of course, we have the second example, this time one of my favorite all-time beauties, French actress Anouk Aimée, then (age 25):

…and now (in her seventies):

Excuse me… fifty years, and that’s the worst that Time can do to her?

As for why she’s one of my favorites of all time, here’s why. Mostly, she played it classy:

…but when she didn’t:

As I’ve always said: true beauty is ageless. Not to mention sexy.

Insisting On Beauty

One of our favorite famille du Toit sayings is: “Architecture doesn’t have to suck.” And that’s because most often, it costs pretty much the same to build a beautiful building as it does an ugly one. (Yeah, sometimes the flourishes and carvings might make it a tad more expensive, but — to use another favorite family saying — “Long after you’ve forgotten how much it originally cost, you’ll still be appreciating its beauty.”) This article, I think, makes a good case for why beauty should be maintained, nay even required, in its examination of why beautiful architecture is so necessary.

My favorite distinction is between the Art Nouveau and the Le Corbusier (a.k.a. Modernist) styles:

  

Myself, I prefer the graceful, almost decadent style of Art Nouveau, and find the sterile straight lines and sharp corners of Modernism (or what I call the “East German”) style repulsive and soul-destroying. It should come as no surprise that the first style came about before the First World War, and the second style immediately thereafter — just like the exquisite art of Impressionism was followed by Cubism [50,000-word anti-Cubism rant deleted].

Yes, I know that Modernist buildings are more “efficient” (like that’s important) in their ease of construction and utilization of space. All I know is that I’d rather look down any classical Parisian street than any modern German one. (Or, for that matter, a street in an American city like Dallas, which is so ugly it’s small wonder that most North Texans prefer to live in the suburbs, which are themselves hardly a source of exemplary architecture.) And I can say with absolute certainty that I’d rather live on a beautiful Art Nouveau street than on one lined with buildings designed by Walter Gropius (another architect who — like Le Corbusier — should be in a space where the temperature is set to “Broil”).

I know, I know: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But as Joseph Campbell is quoted in the linked article above: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to.”

We should live amidst beautiful things, we should strive for beauty even though some evil bastards may call it “decadent”.

A rose is beautiful, and it decays and dies. A concrete block is useful, and survives for centuries, its ugliness almost timeless. No two roses are alike; all concrete blocks are identical. We can always grow another rose to replace a dead one — but to get rid of a concrete block, we need jackhammers and high explosives.

I know that some people may find beauty in straight lines, and sharp corners, and orderliness. I’m just not one of them.

Enough Old Stuff

One of the several “throw or keep?” decisions I had to make when emptying the house was about my CD collection. As I came late to the Digital Revolution (21st Century version) — and some say I still haven’t joined it — I haven’t started downloading music from Amazon Musik or whatever they call it, simply because I have most of my favorite music on CD already, and with a very few exceptions, I find modern music unappealing.

Unfortunately, this also means that I’ve become sick of all the old music, “old” being defined as 60s-70s music of my rock star (uh huh) youth. I mean, if I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” and anything by Led Zeppelin one more time, I’m going to slip the safety off the 1911. Even longtime favorites like Genesis, Steely Dan and Jethro Tull are beginning to pall, and needless to say, I have every album of artists like the aforementioned as well as the Beatles, Joe Walsh and Wishbone Ash on CD, so the collection of my favorite musical genres is extensive. But I never listen to it anymore because I’m bored with it. I ended up keeping almost all my old CDs, but have yet to unpack any of them, let alone listen to them. The problem is that music has always been a major part of my existence, and I have to listen to something.

So what am I listening to, at the moment? Classical, mostly, because it doesn’t seem as though I can ever get sick of it. Lately I’ve rediscovered several old favorites like Saint-Saëns and Dvorak, and of course there’s always the perennials (Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven etc.) that can be relied upon for listening pleasure, as always. It also helps that their music is being interpreted differently by the various conductors and musicians (Lisitsa, Grimaud, Mutter and so on) — and just as I’ve veered away from Classic Rock, I’ve also lost interest in classical artists like Gould, Rubinstein, Horowitz and even Barenboim (the “Old Guys”, as I’ve heard them described). I like the freshness and verve that virtuosos like Valentina Lisitsa and Olga Kern bring to the old favorites like Beethoven’s Pathétique and Rachmaninoff’s Piano No.2, and the effect of that is almost, as I said earlier, a rediscovery of classical music.

In similar vein, I listen to the old standards like the songs of Rogers & Hart, Carmichael and Gershwin — they never grow old — but I have to say, I also enjoy the interpretations given their music by “modern” artists as well: people like the incomparable Harry Connick Jr. and equally-brilliant Norah Jones. Even Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton have started to reinterpret the standards and to my mind, are eclipsing the “old guys” like Fred Astaire and Julie London, who actually introduced me to this genre. (It’s not that the latter are bad — of course they aren’t — but I’ve just heard them so often, it’s starting to get stale. Yes, even Astaire.)

There’s a common thread to the above which I’ve just realized at this moment: it’s not the music I’m sick of, it’s the original versions thereof. Nobody is reinterpreting Classic Rock, other than as cover bands like American English (Beatles) and Zepparella (Zep).

So maybe that’s what Classic Rock needs: for new guys to reinterpret their music (as opposed to just reproducing it), much as Dred Zeppelin did to Led Zeppelin (I love the Dred, by the way). Let’s hear Dream Theater do their version of the White Album (minus the excruciating Revolution No.9, please), let’s see what Norah Jones does to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes and let’s find out what Samantha Fish does with Blowing In The Wind and Harry Connick Jr. with Only One Woman.

But if I can ask for one, and only one favor from all this reinterpretation activity: we do not repeat not need another version of Free Bird. Don’t make me slip that safety off the 1911…


Update: This wouldn’t be a decent post without an example of the “old” music, and a totally gratuitous pic of what I’m talking about. Here’s Samantha Fish:

…and here’s Only One Woman.

Cover Art, Journeyman Artist

Normally, when I do a profile like this, I do a short biography and some background of the subject… but there are times when I just want to shut up and let the man’s work do the talking.

This is especially true of Robert McGinnis, whose work is as popular with ordinary people as with book editors and publishing houses. I have to tell you, this is an artist of exceptional talent — yeah, he doesn’t do “fine” art, but I have to tell you, his art is just fine by me.

If like me you’ve read many paperback novels, McGinniss’s work will probably be familiar to you; and even if you haven’t, his style will be instantly recognizable. If you look for “journeyman artist” in a dictionary, it will be his face right there under the entry title.  Here are a few examples:

   

…and I know, I’m going to hear mutters of “graphic art, not fine art”. Yeah, I know: he’s no Boldini (whom we will be examining later this month). But just because McGinniss has earned his living with the above kind of work, it doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of a different class of art — like this one:

And then there’s this one, in which you can almost taste the dust:

…and this one, full of menace (can you spot it?):

I can hear the cries now: “Oh, Kim! Cowboy art? My smelling salts!”

Honestly, I think McGinnis’s work transcends style and trend: they are simply pictures which tell a story; sometimes you have to look for it, and sometimes it’s quite obvious. One more, for luck:

Yeah, it’s James Bond. Why not James Bond?

McGinnis is still alive, and he’s still painting, I think.  Go ahead and google his name if you want to see more of his work. It will take you a while to get through it all, but hey: it’s Sunday.